Eljay is the founder of Why I Love New York City, a photo documentary that has amassed a social following of over 70,000 readers. Originally hailing from the Philippines, Eljay landed in New York City in search of love. Today he inspires thousands of people across the globe by sharing the intimate stories of other New York City natives. With each story comes a reminder that despite the hardships, New York City is the one place on earth where you will find limitless possibilities to achieve your dreams, and find certainty in life and love.
Tell us about your background.
I am originally from the Philippines. I grew up in the northern most tip of the Philippines. It was close enough that you could see South Korea in the distance. I grew up in a rural area; in a very small tribal town in the Cagayan Valley. All we had were mostly chickens and pigs. If you compared my part of the Philippines to the US, we were like the smallest town in North Dakota.
What was it like growing up in the Philippines?
We fished a lot and there were coconuts everywhere. Since I grew up in the farm area I was a countryside Asian, not like the city type Asian. I moved to the capital of the Philippines, the city Manila, when I was four or five years old.
What brought your family to America?
There were not many opportunities that my parents had in the Philippines, even though they were both valedictorians in their respective classes. They had to leave me and my brother for a year or two to move here. My mom went to Abu Dhabi and my dad went to New York City where they worked for two or three years before they had enough money to bring us over to America.
Where did you stay in the Philippines while your parents were away for so long?
I stayed with aunts, uncles, and cousins. A couple of neighbors kind of raised me too. I was used to having a lot of cousins around. I haven’t seen my aunt and uncle since 1989 and they raised me while my parents were away.
When you came to America, what city did you move to?
We started living in Hawaii for a little while and then we ended up in State College, Pennsylvania. My mom got a job as a nurse in New Jersey a couple years later and my dad worked as a computer engineer.
What was it like for your parents to immigrate to America?
They would always say that they were okay dropping everything to come to America. A lot of people my age have a similar story of how their parents used all of their savings to come here.
Have you been back to the Philippines?
Not since 1989.
When you’re missing the Philippines, where do you go in New York City for a taste of home?
The Ugly Kitchen in the Lower East Side is a Filipino restaurant that I really like. I don’t have much recollection of the food I had back then but I remembered that I ate a lot of fried foods and food with a lot of oil!
What is your favorite dish at the Ugly Kitchen?
My favorite is kawali, which is crispy pork belly and lechon.
How would you describe Filipino food and culture?
Our people are very warm and friendly. Food is a big part of our culture. Even if you’re very poor, food makes you feel very rich because you can make it and there’s always enough for your neighbor. In the Philippines, whenever people are sick, their parents always say it’s because they haven’t eaten yet.
Our culture is also about trying anything new food-wise and making you feel welcome. Our food is very good, even though some of our food looks weird.
What are some of the things that you miss since moving away from the Philippines?
Honestly, I miss getting water from the well for baths. I miss the floods. When I was a kid, I would make paper boats and let them sail in the streets when the streets would flood. I miss the coconuts, and the fish that we could fish for free. I also miss the weather in the North, the cold sand, and the rain and tropical hurricanes. When it rains here in America I really feel at ease because it reminds me of home.
What are your thoughts on Miss Philippines winning the crown of Miss Universe?
I am proud. It’s a really great win for our country. We have Bruno Mars and now Pia who is gorgeous. I think that the mishap with Steve Harvey only made the moment better. With social media these days, doing stupid things makes anyone look cool. That’s just me being honest about it.
Tell us about what brought you to New York City.
I didn’t have a typical reason for moving to New York. It was a romantic belief that led me here. It started with a girl I dated back in 2004. She broke up with me but I was never really over her. During the three years that we were together she had this love for New York City. After we broke up, I dated a lot and tried to get her out of my mind and tried to get over her.
It came down to the fact that if I was ever going to see her again, I knew I had to come to New York City. So it wasn’t for a job, or anything — I just thought that if I was ever going to see her again I had to move here.
Did you end up finding her?
I never saw her again but I came to New York and ending up meeting my wife, Minette. If it weren’t for my first love’s love for New York, I would have never moved here. Her love for New York City was a big sign for me; she was the catalyst for the rest of my life.
Tell us about what you do now.
I’m the founder of the blog Why I Love New York City. It’s a photo documentary on those little New York City moments that we sometimes forget. Why I love New York City was inspired by my first love bringing me to New York City and resulting in meeting my wife. There are stories about the little moments in life that you never think about until you realize that they lead you to where you are today.
How did you grow the blog?
For every person that I feature they tell their friends and that’s how it grows organically. Referrals are the main key.
Now that your blog is so popular, have you turned Why I Love New York City into your full time job?
I am a Quality Analyst for a Human Tissue Bank in New Jersey, a company that uses donated human tissue and creates them into grafts that become implanted in human patients. I manage to have a successful blog based in New York City while working full time and have a family. Creativity can never be limited.
I don’t see myself as a photographer or journalist. I see myself as a creative person that wants to push out certain concepts. This project is something I like to do on the side, but it’s not something I will leave my job for. This page started out just to show how much I love my wife and it will continue to be that way. I’m inspired by people and their love for New York so it’s really easy for me to keep this going without having to make it feel like a job for the meantime.
How did Why I Love New York City begin?
The first person I featured was my wife. She told the story of how we fell in love after our first date. It started out as featuring our story and why I loved the city. Then I changed it so that it was for New Yorkers and why they love New York City. I had hundreds of posts before her feature, but I didn’t see the true nature of it until I featured her.
Is your wife from a similar background as you?
Yes, she is Filipino. We were actually living in the same city for two years of our lives in the Philippines before we moved away to come to the states at separate times. I first made contact with her on 57th and 7th. There’s an interesting story about how we met.
What’s the story behind how you met?
I switched IDs with another person by accident at a lounge or bar that night. When I closed out my tab, the waitress accidentally brought me someone else’s bill and ID. We looked alike and it was actually the best friend of my soon to be wife. When I realized that switch happened an hour later, I had to go back to the bar, and standing there next to the guy who had my ID was my wife Minette. That’s how I met her.
Tell us why you love New York City?
There’s something about New York that leads you to the life that you accept and love and that you find comfort in. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s always a moment that was really important that they somehow forgot, whether how big or how small, that perfectly led them to this life they love today.
What are some of your favorite things about New York City?
How every little detail in New York is a sign for a choice you have to make. I never really believed in “meant to be” moments but New York gave me certainties, like “that feeling” moments.
Now that you’re living with your family in New Jersey how often do you come into the city?
I come when I do my projects for Why I love New York City, and I come to take my son for a nice walk and take my wife out to dinner. I am sometimes successful in suckering my wife to come with me to the city, but it’s only 20 minutes away on train so it’s not a burden on any of us.
My wife always asks me, why do you go to the city so much? New York City is kind of like my side chick. That’s how I feel. I don’t need to explain it, she just is.